GABI: AN INDIGENOUS VEGETABLE OF THE PHILIPPINES
GABI ( Colocasia esculenta (L.) Schott), known in English as taro, cocoyam, elephant’s ear, dasheen, and eddoe , is also known in Philippine local names as natong, katnga, gaway (Bicol), aba, abalong, balong, dagmay, gaway, kimpoy, lagbay, butig (Visayan), badyan (Hanunoo), aba, awa (Ilocano), atang (Itawis), and sudi (Ivatan).
In addition to the names listed here, there are still more names: karot, pikaw pising and palak in Ilocos; gutaw and utan in Capiz, and many more. Gabi’s many names extend to its other edible parts. The petiole may be called tangkay, paklang or vunes. The young leafless runners are called takway, alikway or even balong or abalong, which is used interchangeably with the local name of the cultivar that produces a lot of runners, popularly used in Panay island’s dagmay and laing dishes. The starchy corms may be called laman, ugat, tayud, aba or awa.
Did you know that the use of many distinct local names for a vegetable is an indication of how long it has been grown? With these many distinct names for the plant and its edible parts across the different linguistic groups, Filipinos must have been growing and eating gabi since antiquity.
WHAT MAKES GABI, A GABI? Gabi leaves are large, like downwand-pointing hearts, green and waxy on the upper surface, while pale bluish-white with a frosted appearance underneath. The leaf is supported by a long petiole or stalk originating from an upright tuberous rootstock, called a corm ( laman).
The petiole are arranged in a way similar to the way rose petals are arranged. Also referred to as stalks, they are erect and are attached to the leaf near the central part of the leaf blade. The two upper leaf lobes are joined together at a point away from where the petiole is attached to the leaf, so that gabi leaves look less arrow-like than other similar-looking plants in the Aroid family.
The leaf and petiole are succulent and come in various colors, ranging from light green to dark green purple, and sizes depending on the variety and growing environment.
ITCHY GABI? ITCH IS NOT A PROBLEM Gabi’s reputation for acridity and itchiness is a downer for some. However, gabi is one of the oldest food crops that grows almost everywhere in the Philippines. Even if it may not be native to the archipelago, some scientists believe that the famous Rice Terraces of the Philippines in the Cordilleras were originally constructed for gabi cultivation. Stories of wild gabi saving many Filipinos from famine during World War II also abound. Today, Panay Island in the Visayas and the Bicol Region in Southern Luzon are best known for their gastronomic fetish on gabi, despite its reputation for being acrid and itchy if not prepared properly.
What’s with the itch, anyway? The acridity and itchiness of gabi are due to crystals of calcium oxalate. These look like bundles of needles contained in tubular or capsule-shaped cells in the leaves called “idioblasts”. When the plant is damaged or cut, the idioblasts are also cut open and shoot the needles of calcium oxalate, causing the itchiness in the skin or the irritating sensation in the tongue and throat. The concentration of calcium oxalate in the leaves decreases as the leaves age.
The gabi itch is well-known, but this has not deterred Filipinos from embracing the exotic taste of laing and pinangat, possibly gabi’s most popular preparations.
How is this itchiness managed, then? There are both legitimate preparation practices as well as folk rituals bordering on the superstitious, to lessen – if not eliminate – gabi’s acridity. Who knows, there might even be a scientific basis for each of them. 1. Drying gabi leaves before cooking is believed to significantly reduce the risk of an itchy gabi dish. Hang newly-harvested gabi leaves by the petioles above the cook stove or fireplace, or dry them under the sun for two to three days. Strip parts of the lamina of the furled leaves leaving the midrib and carefully peel the stalk using a knife. When properly cleaned and dried, gabi leaves may last for 2-3 weeks or even a month. However, in Leyte, hanging to air-dry is enough if there is no intention to store the leaves.
2. In using furled and unfurling leaves ( piripit/pilipit), it is recommended that the leaves are tapped three times on the table or any surface. Then, leaves are opened and the central part wiped with a clean cloth to remove the wax. Next, the tip is removed and the stalk peeled before tying the leaf into a knot. Water running off the gabi leaf drips out of its tip, taking with it some of the calcium oxalate crystals – and thus, increasing the concentration at the tips. Thus, removing the tips removes much of what causes the itch.
3. For the corm, it is recommended that the skin is peeled off completely, and the peeled corm diced and soaked in water with a few drops of vinegar and a pinch of salt.
4. The runners ( takway) are similarly soaked in water with a few drops of vinegar and a pinch of salt. Preferably, harvest only the young and the soft runners, wash in running water, and peel the skin off, leaving only the soft and tender inner part, which is cut into equal lengths.
5. It is also good to avoid two things when cooking: constant stirring and covering the cooking pan. As soon as the color changes, a few drops of vinegar and a pinch of salt is added. 6. Finally, it is believed that planting gabi during full moon ( dayaw, paghipono, takdul or ugsan) and low tide ( hubas) will reduce itchiness.
WHERE GABI GROWS It is perhaps safe to say that gabi can grow anywhere – or at least, cultivars are available for a wide range of tropical growing conditions. In practically all sites, at least one gabi cultivar was mentioned as an indigenous vegetable, whether for its leaves, petioles, runners, corms, or all of these. They may be cultivated in home gardens or in larger production areas, or simply gathered from field margins, forested areas, idle lands, or bedside bodies of water.